Paid leave was a hot topic in the first Democratic debate, with Senator Bernie Sanders calling the U.S.’s nonexistent federal paid-leave policy an “international embarrassment” and Hillary Clinton recalling being a working mom with a sick baby. “I know what it is like,” she said. “And I think we need to recognize the incredible challenges that so many parents have, particularly working moms.” Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley also sympathized with mothers, which is great—aside from the fact that they missed the whole other half of parenting: the dads.
In order for women to ever have a fair shake in the workplace—I’m looking at you, gender wage gap—paid leave needs to be viewed as crucial for women and men. This is something that should make sense by now, and if candidates looked at millennial fathers for a hot second, they might get it, too. These are men who, in addition to doing the bulk of the grocery shopping and dazzling you with their ’90s-inspired Spotify baby playlist (think Weezer on a banjo), are now becoming familiar faces in the fight for paid leave. It's a battle women have waged, mostly on our own—don’t sweat it, guys; happy to have you—for years. And like a wish granted from a diaper genie, men are starting to step up. Too bad most of the candidates haven’t noticed.
“These days, the badge of honor comes from being a dad who takes leave and who is an equal partner,” says Jacob Feinspan, 35, an advocate in Washington, D.C., and father of two. To be fair, the average age of the Democratic candidates on stage at the first debate is 65, and it’s millennial fathers leading the charge for paid leave, fueled by a shift in social norms Boomer dads might struggle to understand. The pressure men feel is real: Eighty-eight percent of fathers in their 20s and 30s say it’s important to be a “perfect dad,” outnumbering the 78 percent of moms who feel the same way. And in order to be this A+ father, it’s reasonable to assume that men, you know, want to be around when their children are born and need policies that enable them to do so.
According to Brad Harrington, Ph.D., the executive director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family and a leading expert on fatherhood, the cultural shift of dads wanting to be more involved—including taking time off to be with their families—has gained momentum over the past five years, which is also when the oldest millennials entered their 30s. Roughly 80 percent of today’s new dads were raised in the 1980s and ’90s, a time when the number of working women grew to more than 57 percent of the female population, making a two-income household the norm. In college, these same men were (and are) outpaced by women, who earn more bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. By the time they are ready to have a family, “these guys fully expect that their wives are going to have jobs, that they will probably work full-time, and may not be able to take off for long periods of time,” Harrington says. The result is a groundswell of men fighting for their right to parental-leave policies.
The momentum behind men advocating for paid leave is at least partly boosted by the smarter, sexier makeover fatherhood has received from the media (including our own magazine and website) over the past few years—a change that Harrington says was reflected in the 2015 Super Bowl ads like this one from Dove, and further evidenced by the emergence of “daddy bloggers,” a community that’s grown so much in both size and power that it has its own summit. Josh Levs, a journalist, father of three, and author, benefited from the support of that community when he was denied paid parental leave by his employer in 2013, fought it, and won. (The company ultimately changed its corporate policy after Levs’s case garnered national attention, but it was never forced legally.) “As soon as I announced the legal action, support came in from so many people and groups—women’s and men’s groups, mom and dad blogs, people on the left and right, business leaders, people across the political spectrum,” he says. Now Levs, 43, has more than 40,000 Twitter followers, and recently wrote the book All In, a call to action for working dads that he hopes will do for them at home what Lean In did for women in the office.
Unfortunately, they’re in for a long slog. New dads are facing outdated social stigmas, judgment from older bosses and CEOs, and arguments from Republican lawmakers that paid leave will hurt small businesses. Sure, there are companies like Facebook and Netflix offering generous paid leave to fathers—17 weeks and up to one year, respectively—but this is hardly the norm in the U.S. As it stands, the Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees only 12 weeks of unpaid leave for eligible workers, making the United States the only industrialized nation without paid maternity leave, and trailing behind the 70 countries that offer paid leave to fathers. Also defeating: Only 13 percent of men in the U.S. who take leave receive pay, and seven out of ten new dads take ten days of leave or less, according to the Department of Labor. The whole “paid” part is kind of a big deal for any successful plan forward; when companies do offer paid time off, most guys will take the maximum number of days offered, says Harrington. But first, paid leave has to be an actual, real-life option, and new dads are pushing for just that.
Just ask Feinspan, who took four weeks off work and two months of half workdays when his wife gave birth to their son. “I saw how personally meaningful it was to be at home with my son,” he says. “I also saw other friends who weren’t able to be home, and the routine ended up being that the wife became confident [as a parent] and the dad just never did.” When Feinspan became the executive director of the activist organization Jews United for Justice, he created a paid-family-leave program for all of his employees. He also helped launch what’s an ongoing paid-family-leave campaign in Washington, D.C., so that other new parents can hopefully one day reap the same benefits as his employees.